As Sporting Kansas City prepares for its 26th season as a charter member of Major League Soccer, SportingKC.com is rolling out a 26-day countdown to the start of the 2021 campaign. A mouthwatering opening weekend of MLS action will see Sporting Kansas City visit the New York Red Bulls at 7 p.m. CT on April 17, giving supporters their first look at Manager Peter Vermes’ side since last December.
The 2021 Preseason Countdown, presented by Children’s Mercy, will serve as the comprehensive, go-to preview of everything that awaits Sporting Kansas City in the weeks and months to come. From key storylines and bold predictions to statistical breakdowns and players to watch, the 2021 Preseason Countdown will highlight the many reasons to be excited for what’s ahead. To visit the series homepage as it expands, visit SportingKC.com/2021countdown.
In Tuesday's edition of our 26-day countdown, we identified five players who are poised to play leading roles for Sporting Kansas City in 2021. However, as important as stars like Johnny Russell, Alan PulidoTim Melia and newcomers Remi Walter and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin will be, they're only parts of a larger puzzle.
On the opposite end of Sporting's roster spectrum, a bevy of young and emerging talents are painting a bright future for the club. In the space below, we profile five players under the age of 21 (as of today) who could help Sporting compete for trophies sooner rather than later.
Midfielder Gianluca Busio (age 18)
One of the brightest teenage prospects in American soccer, Gianluca Busio has been the most impactful teenager in Sporting history. Capable of playing multiple positions in the midfield and attack, the wunderkind has recorded six goals and six assists in 57 competitive appearances, including 30 starts. The 2020 season may have been shortened by the pandemic, but it was Busio’s busiest Sporting campaign to date. He started 18 of 23 appearances in all competitions, tallying two goals and four assists while featuring in all but two games throughout the year.
With tremendous talent comes expectation, and it would only be fair to expect Busio to take another step forward in 2021. The 18-year-old is likely to log substantial minutes in the midfield, either in an advanced or holding role, and could also end up featuring as a winger. The fact that Sporting has bestowed No. 10 to Busio is a clear indication of his growing status at the club.
Defender Jaylin Lindsey (age 20)
Among the rising stars on the cusp of a bona fide breakout in MLS is right back Jaylin Lindsey, a talented U.S. youth international who enters 2021 with higher expectations than ever before.
Lindsey finished the 2020 campaign with a career-high 14 matches played, including starts in each of Sporting's last eight MLS fixtures after Graham Zusi was lost to a season-ending injury in early October. Each of his 14 appearances came after the conclusion of the MLS is Back Tournament last summer, an indication that Lindsey truly began to flourish during the latter half of the season. He also gained playoff experience, playing every minute of Sporting's two postseason contests against San Jose and Minnesota.
With veteran Graham Zusi still rehabbing his foot injury, Lindsey stands a great chance of starting at right back in the early stages of 2021 and using that opportunity to become a mainstay. He can also play as a left back, a task he has handled impressively under Vermes in the past.
Midfielder Cam Duke (age 20)
Born and raised in Overland Park, Kansas, Cam Duke broke into the first team last year and landed his Sporting debut at the MLS is Back Tournament, earning praise from Vermes in the process. Despite his lack of professional experience—Duke jumped straight to MLS from the Sporting KC Academy—he wound up making nine MLS appearances over the course of the season, including two impressive starts in draws against FC Dallas and Chicago Fire FC. He notably created six scoring chances in just 224 minutes of action as Sporting went 4-2-2 in the eight regular season matches he played.
It should be noted that soccer runs in the Duke family. Cam’s older brother, Christian Duke, is the current captain of Sporting KC II and the club’s all-time leader in USL Championship appearances. Cam’s father, Chris Duke, played indoor for the Kansas City Comets and Kansas City Attack in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Forward Grayson Barber (age 20)
Rookie Grayson Barber took an unconventional route toward his dream of reaching the Sporting Kansas City first team. The South Carolina native spent three years in the Sporting KC Academy, but instead of jumping straight to the pro ranks, he detoured to Clemson University for a prolific three-year college stint before circling back to Sporting at the start of 2021.
In three seasons at Clemson, Barber amassed 13 goals and 18 assists in 49 appearances as one of the top college players in the country. Although it's reasonable to expect Barber to undergo a learning curve at the MLS level, Vermes thinks the 20-year-old has what it takes to succeed at the top level.
“I’ll always remember Grayson being an incredibly competitive player here in our academy, then he went to a very good program at Clemson and we kept an eye on him," Vermes said earlier this year. "Brian Bliss and I were looking at game film of his and I said, ‘Man, he’s taken his game to another level.’ I can see his skillset having an impact in MLS.”
Midfielder Ozzie Cisneros (age 17)
The youngest player on Sporting Kansas City’s roster just may have the biggest upside. Versatile attacker Ozzie Cisneros put pen to paper on an MLS contract in January, marking the start of what coaches, teammates and fans alike will be the start of a special professional journey for the talented U.S. international and Sporting KC Academy product.
As with any teenage professional, Cisneros will experience a learning curve as he transitions from competing with U-17 and U-19 players at the academy level to facing grown men in MLS. When he gets his minutes, however—either with the first team or with Sporting KC II in the USL Championship—expect Cisneros to showcase his skillful qualities in multiple areas on the pitch.